I've been thinking a lot about love lately. Given that this is the season of Love Actually, and "All I Want for Christmas is You" (versions 1 and 2 - both of which touch my heart), I suppose that's to be expected. But I haven't primarily been thinking about romantic love.
This is also the season of Advent, the period for joyful hope and anticipation of the most selfless love the world has ever known. So, I've been thinking about agape love, in its many translations, and how that love is made manifest today. Here. Now. What should it look like? How should it feel? How should one act, when inspired by agape? How should I?
I first remember learning about agape when I converted to Catholicism seventeen years ago. But as I was a somewhat ...decadent... convert focused on other things, I never really examined what it meant. And in the intervening years, as I eventually grew away from and then closer to my Catholic faith, I've become interested in understanding agape more.
But I think I've been going about it all wrong.
I'm a recovering academic dilettante, so I tend to seek understanding in reading and pondering, which is fine ... as a starting point. But at some point, I need to act on what I have learned. I need to do. After all, practice makes perfect or at least a habit, right? But acting on agape love is just as daunting (scary, even) as acting on eros or even affection. What if I do it wrong? Or worse, what if the feeling isn't mutual? How do I share agape in a manner consistent with Christ's commandment that we love one another? Won't that hurt? Or at least expose me to discomfort or exploitation?
A few months ago, I did something that some suggest is proof that I am being hard on myself, proof that I "get" agape. I donated stem cells through Be the Match.
I was matched to a patient last winter and was supposed to donate in the spring. The extraction was delayed several months, taking place early in the start of my second year of law school. It was not the best timing, for a lot of reasons, and the process was more inconvenient and uncomfortable than I was expecting. But through it all, I would tell anyone who asked - more as a mantra to myself, than as some form of piety to whoever was listening - that it was less inconvenient than leukemia. But when I would say it, or think it, I wasn't thinking about the patient who would receive my stem cells. I was thinking about a friend, more than twenty years ago, who I visited in the hospital just days after she aborted her and her husband's second child (their first was still just a toddler) so that she could undergo aggressive chemotherapy in her fight against leukemia. It was a fight she lost, and from the day I first learned about stem cell transplantation, I wondered: if this technology had been available then, would my friend and her child be here now?
The patient, my patient, became a vessel for my long buried grief and retroactive heroics. Donating my stem cells was not really about Her. It was about hopefully sparing another family and another group of friends the loss that my friend's family, my family and our community suffered. It was about me saving "a" life, because I couldn't save her life years ago. It was, I think, a profoundly selfish "gift."
And it didn't work.
Today, as I was suiting up in the gym for a little morning workout, I received The Call. Unlike the previous call, a few weeks after the transplant, this was not good news. The patient, my patient, has died.
And I am genuinely sad for this woman I never met, never spoke to, never even wrote, because I had assumed that there would be time enough for that...someday. Time and again I was offered the opportunity by Be The Match to send her a card (through them in deference to our respective privacy). Time and again, I'd put it off. Certainly, law school and single parenting and working and trying to take care of myself (body, mind and soul) kept me busy. But it was one card I could have sent. Should have sent. Because in that one card, my "gift" would have truly been directed towards Her. She would have ceased to be a cipher for my attenuated grief. She would have become someone I took time to care about and acknowledge in Her own right.
Though I would often pray for Her and her family, I never reached out. I never told Her. I never shared with Her a desire for her healing and recovery. I made a deposit of stem cells, was reimbursed for my expenses, and proceeded to live my life as normal. And in my normal life, I live and love primarily in my head (with a strong exception made for my daughter, who may well someday move to a different country to avoid my helicopter tendencies).
As I sat in the sauna, I read some of Leo Buscaglia's Born for Love, and was broadsided by the passage entitled, "Love is not a private affair," at the bottom of which there was a quote by Norman Vincent Peale: "If you think you have given enough, think again. There is always more to give and someone to give it to."
It confronted me and shamed me. And it sent me on a course of thought and pondering that compelled me to both write this post and begin drafting a letter to Her family. This post is NOT about me. I am an only child, a Libra and a former drama geek, so I am very comfortable with being the center of attention. But the focus of this post, is agape and the reminder that like all love, it doesn't just happen and it can't just exist in our heads. To make it manifest requires that we do agape, for the right reasons, which is to say...for no reason at all. We do agape Just Because...like a card, sent to a stranger, with the hope that She is well.